February 07, 2021
From her time as a nurse to her place today as one of New Zealand’s best-known photographic artists, Emmahas always derived great joy from helping others. And she tells us that in both careers, which at first glance appear wildly different, the ability to bring relief and happiness to other people is what it’s all about.
“My work has always been about giving comfort,” says Emma, who has numerous artworks hanging on the walls of Auckland Hospital, and regularly donates pieces to hospices and rest homes. “That can be done through nursing, but also through imagery. When someone tells me that my work has lifted their spirits, despite a personal setback or tragedy, it encourages me in a very profound way.”
And working with flowers, which has been the focus of Emma’s creative endeavours for almost a decade, has also helped her through her own hurdles in life. Immersing herself in the beauty of the floral compositions she creates for her photos has been enormously cathartic, she says.
“Flowers are incredibly soothing,” she explains. “And of course I’m not alone, flowers have always been a symbol of hope and love in cultures all over the world. In fact, they’re one of the most universal forms of beauty. They are tokens of love, a natural expression of the environment and they’ve also been scientifically proven, in psychology research labs, to improve both mental and physical wellbeing. I find this incredibly inspiring.”
Welcoming us into the light-filled 1950s Auckland home she shares with children Olive, 19, and George, 11, Emma, who’s in her early 50s, is as colourful an experience as her artworks. Her beloved pet bird Kowhai chirps happily in the corner, and every wall and shelf is adorned with an eclectic array of objets d’art. An avid collector of vases, her cabinets and shelves heave with the 250-strong collection, and every wall is covered in artworks – a mix of her own and others’.
This Mt Eden home, says Emma, is where her heart is – it’s where she welcomes friends for impromptu gatherings, watches her kids grow, and seeks solace from the busyness of life.
“It’s my sanctuary,” she says. It’s also the creative hub from which her floral works spring. Every day, be found in the downstairs space that’s become her studio showroom , artfully arranging her compositions and photographing them throughout their natural process of decline. She has recently experimented with adding rocks to her work, creating thought-provoking images of flowers springing from them. “There’s an intriguing beauty, a sense of time passing, and also solidity and fragility in the contrast between the rocks and the flower, I think.”
Born in a small village in Liberia, where her cardiologist dad Nigel Bass was working, Emma and her family (who hailed from England) arrived in New Zealand in the mid-70s, when she was six. She showed artistic promise from an early age, and one of her enduring memories is of decorating the Coronary Care Unit at Auckland Hospital to bring cheer to the patients during the festive season.
“I painted baubles and trees and stars on the windows each Christmas for years,” she says, explaining she inherited her artistic ability from her mother who has always been strongly connected with art and artists. “Trying to bring some beauty into the lives of patients, who were very sick and couldn’t go home helped teach me to look for joy wherever I could find it. It showed me that beauty can be staged and brought into people’s spaces, where ever they are; an insight I hope can be seen through my work.”
Despite her obvious talent and passion, Emma’s practical side kicked in when she left school and she opted to study nursing. It was a decision she’s never regretted - as a cardiothoracic nurse, taking care of some of the illest patients on heart wards brought her a profound sense of purpose, and she loved every minute of it.
“It was incredibly rewarding and satisfying. Knowing you’re making a difference in some small way is a wonderful feeling.”
But art was always bubbling away in the background and it was during a stint in London in her 20s that Emma’s love of photography really bloomed. She joined the Camera Club in Leicester Square, learning darkroom techniques and taking part in her first group exhibition. On her return to New Zealand several years later, while still working as a nurse, she started to dabble in commercial photography work, and before long, she was one of the most in-demand photographers, capturing some of this country’s best known faces for magazines and newspapers. Memorable moments include convincing filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson to pose with a real-life weta on his face, she also photographed Sir Edmund Hillary and rugby legend Jonah Lomu, just before his death in 2015.
Again, Emma references her nursing career in giving her the skills to work with people from such broad walks of life. “It’s that ability to put people at ease in front of a camera,” she says. “It’s a bit like a bedside manner – you need to quickly build a rapport and that’s something I think I’ve become good at over the years.”
She loved the work, but also craved greater creative freedom, so in her mid-30s gave up nursing to focus solely on her art and photography. It was a joyous time and her stunning images garnered awards and acclaim in equal measure. Over the years, her interest in flora gathered pace, a response, she believes, to certain challenging “life events” - including a series of miscarriages and the ending of her marriage.
“It was through this suffering that I realised we often have to endure, we sometimes overcome things, but more often than not, we actually need to learn to live with, accept and persist. And that idea for me was linked closely to flowers; that there can be beauty and comfort amidst pain.”
In 2016, she was the only New Zealand artist to be invited to appear at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London, and she was shortlisted as a finalist again in 2019.
While Emma only spent her early years in Liberia, she tells us it seems to have left an indelible mark. She’s always been drawn to the music and art of Africa, and has ideas percolating for an art project using Liberian Kissi pennies, a form of local currency.
She’s also recently released an artwork in the form of a fine art jigsaw puzzle — a response to Covid-19 lockdowns, when puzzles experienced something of a renaissance — and has plans for an umbrella, based on her artwork, later in the year. She’s currently working with an incredible butterfly collection, this animated work ‘Coevolve’ will be featured in the Auckland Arts Festival this March. It’s a busy time, but for now, she’s focusing on her latest exhibition, ‘Love,’ at the Boyd Dunlop gallery in Napier. It’s the first time she’s exhibited in the Hawke’s Bay and the first time she’s presented something of a ‘retrospective’ of all her works. After much thinking, she settled on the word “love” as its title “because it is the force that animates everything I do.” Fittingly, it opens on Valentine’s Day.
“Love motivated me as a nurse who cared for others, it infuses my work as a parent and my romantic and platonic relationships. The sharing of love is what I hope to offer my audience through my work.”
Exhibition: February 14th until March 9th, 2020 (Opening Feb 14th 3– 5 pm )